A story of Copyright Use in the Great Library of Alexandria

In modern times, it is only natural to pay the utmost attention to the originality of every literary work, quoting one’s sources properly and duly giving credit to the authors of original ideas. It may surprise you that the same values were kept in antiquity as well.

Now famous Roman architect (and author of The Ten Books on Architecture) Vitruvius tells a fascinating story about a time when the principle of originality resonated intensively in the city of Alexandria in the Ptolemaic Egypt. King Ptolemy, having just finished the Great Library of Alexandria, attempted to organize a little marketing stunt to turn the world’s attention towards this new wonder of the world. Taking athletic games for inspiration, he decided to hold a different kind of games – a kind where poets, not athletes, would compete against each other. A jury of honourable and well-read men would select the winner.

The king selected six jurors himself, all men held in the highest esteem, but preferred to find one more to achieve a more suitable odd number seven. He asked the staff of the Great Library for recommendations and their opinion was clear. Aristophanes, an extremely well-read man, and a bookworm even in the opinion of the librarians was selected as the last one.

When the day of the games finally came, the poets were all reciting high-quality poetry and the crowd just loved it. The people of Alexandria didn’t hide their preference and cheered and applauded to let the jury know, how to vote. One of the competing poets got an extremely positive reaction from the crowd and 6 of the 7 judges were ready to proclaim him the winner. Who opposed the decision? Aristophanes, of course. In fact, he argued in favour of a poet that received the least enthusiastic reaction of all the competitors. Needless to say, the people were outraged. If you ever experienced the disappointment when your favourite movie of the year didn’t win an Oscar and the movie you thought was completely unwatchable did, you know what I mean. Now try to imagine that absolutely everyone would share that feeling. Aristophanes asked for the opportunity to explain himself.

He argued he picked the winner correctly and made the decision on the grounds that that guy was, in fact, the only original poet in the whole competition. All other poets were just reciting someone else’s verses. While this was a serious accusation, Aristophanes proved his point by finding all the original poems copied by the competing poets among the scrolls in the library. The exposed cheaters were punished, and the educated hero of the day was rewarded and appointed a librarian. 


Vitruvius: Ten books on architecture; Book VII, translated by Joseph Gwilt

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